I have this brother-in-law who is impossibly good-looking. I mean, stupid hot. He's a bachelor on the "the dirty side of 30" and sometimes, this means he gets a little guff about when he's going to settle down. I was at a party with him one time when things turned on a dime and became an interrogation into his autonomy the likes of which has not been seen since Mumbles got the heat lamp treatment from Dick Tracy. In the midst of all the clamor, one word kept popping up: selfish. "You're probably just too selfish to be in a relationship. If you weren't so used to having things your way, then you'd be ready. And, what about kids? Isn't it selfish to not want children?"
During the indecision that marked the months before Mary and I decided to take the plunge (gross!), I heard similar diatribes about the hobgoblin of selfishness. I never could understand the force of reason and emboldened zeal with which people -- often random people -- would level this charge against my reluctance to sire. At times it left me thinking, "Geez, it is really important to you that I have unprotected sex! Pervert." After giving the whole thing quite a bit of examination, I came up with a rant that offers a corrective to the "selfishness issue." It goes like:
1. Thinking that voluntary childlessness is selfish = fundamentally illogical. How can one be "selfish" if there is no other "self" to be considered? Think about it. Selfishness is morally deleterious because of an imbalance whereby the good of one is improperly subjugated to the good of another. But, in the case of whether or not to have kids, there is no other self to be accounted for. The question is exactly whether or not to introduce another self into the scenario. How can one be selfish towards a thing that only exists as a possibility? This is like saying I'm selfish for not inviting my mother to brunch... when she lives 700 miles away.
2. The unconscious corollary to this indictment against the child-free is that having children is unselfish. Parenting is difficult and it does cost you much. We often like to pretend that we're automatic martyrs, miniature gods who have given the miracle of Life as pure gift. But, that's bullsh*t. People have had children to secure marriages and to save them, to bolster an identity and belong, to vouchsafe their virility, out of blind Darwinian compulsion and entirely by accident. Oh, and the fact that I feel an overwhelming love for something that I created with someone whom I love and who is, quite literally, comprised of me... sounds a lot more like idol worship than self-sacrifice. It's easy to have affection for those ones that bear our image. Call it, "creatorial obligation." If you make it, you pretty much have to like it.
3. Whether or not we are selfish, with a quiver full or none at all, is dependent on who we are and nothing else. There are childless people who shun their fellow man, just as there are parents who shun their children.
The disease of selfishness doesn't have a demographic.
Presuming that parentage bestows a kind of immediate nobility betrays the facts and makes light of the spiritual discipline necessary to keep an ego from eating its young.
4. There are other ways to give yourself away. I had a graduate professor once tell me that he and many of his colleagues never felt much desire for children, due in large part to the sense of progeny that they already experienced in their students and study. Again, it is a popular idea (particularly among parents, go figure) that there is no higher calling than being a parent. After all, what greater gift could one give than life? But, life isn't simply a preponderance of days in which one is biologically viable and persons aren't just created by genes. The world into which we bring our children has been painstakingly crafted by artists, scientists, thinkers, revolutionaries, politicians, captains of industry, inventors, writers, poets, historians, holy men and women and this world will shape them. In many ways, we owe a debt of gratitude to these "grand architects" for helping bring about a world full of beautiful art and ideas, one into which we are glad to bring new life. These folks, for instance...
Susan B. Anthony
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Simone de Beauvoir
Leonardo Da Vinci
Sir Isaac Newton
George Bernard Shaw
The Wright Brothers
... none of whom had children. Commitment to a craft, a cause, a critique, a country, a composition or even a cash cow can be just as or more vocational and self-giving as the enterprise of parenting. I, for one, am not about to call Mother Teresa "selfish."
In point of fact, many of the minds above were selfless just insofar as they cut themselves off from the joy and social ease of having children, giving themselves over to an even more vital work.
5. There are plenty of other reasons for foregoing the physically creative act. The giftedness and sublimity of life alone is enough to capture a solitary soul for all time. The countenance of others, the wonder of nature, the mystery of God, the sky and seasons or the taste of a mango are all enough. And, you never know what is driving that "selfishness" we so tritely ascribe.
For the girl whose youth was stolen...
For the young man who is petrified for the fate of becoming his father...
For the sensitive soul who already feels too much of the world's suffering...
For those children at heart who are so enrapt with Life that they, like children, bear no seed...
For all those child-free who have been stung by quizzical looks and loaded questions...
This is for you.